Friday, December 25, 2009

How lift lines got shorter


After the invention of the chairlift at Sun Valley, and for the next 50 years, weekend skiers waited in agonizingly long lift lines. They were so long that the guy next to you had time to describe where he was born, his favorite music, why he deserved a promotion at the office, his best powder day, and ... hey, look at that babe in the Bogner pants!

The problem of exasperating and bone-freezing lift queues grew worse after World War II. The number of young baby boomers demanding to ski exceeded the growth of new ski areas and lifts, even though that growth itself was spectacular. In the 10-year period between 1956 and 1966 alone, more than 580 ski areas with chairlifts and T-bars came into being, many previously equipped with rope tows.

< Yet the added lift power wasn't enough. When a million or more skiers arrived at the bottom of the mountain on a Saturday morning, the place looked like a standing-room-only Beatles concert. Waits of 30 minutes and more were common across the country, from Sugarloaf in Maine to Mammoth in California.

Some relief arrived with the advent of triple- and quadruple-seated lifts. But the big breakthrough came in the 1980s with the engineering of the detachable chair. Speed uphill doubled, while time-wasting mishaps in boarding and exiting were sharply reduced because the chair moved slowly at the bottom and top.

In the last five years of the 20th century alone, North American ski resorts installed 250 lifts capable of carrying more people uphill than all of the lifts that existed in the winter of 1965-66!

Today, a Saturday or Sunday lift line scarcely allows time to work up an après-ski date. In the 1950s and 1960s, writer Morten Lund observed, lift lines allowed enough time "to meet a member of the opposite sex, get infatuated, engaged and plan the wedding."

Uncomfortable as they were, long waiting lines and slow lifts made skiing the sociable sport we know today. You can still find them at ski areas. They've moved indoors to the base lodge bar.

John Fry is the author of the award-winning "Story of Modern Skiing," a history of the sport after 1945.

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